My Paradise: Uncovering Okinawa’s legends, myths
My Paradise: Uncovering Okinawa’s legends, myths
Okinawa abounds with legends and myths, surprises where least expected and rare animals that can’t be seen anywhere else. The island is dense with sacred places and scattered tombs that can be found by wandering off an unmarked side trail or going a little farther afield from a popular tourist spot. These aren’t particularly spectacular in and of themselves but the stories they tell can walk the line between myth and history, sharing the fate of kings, heroes, villains, and even follow the path of a goddess, making the everyday just a little bit more exciting and interesting without having to stand in line or pay admission (which can suck the wonder out of anything).
Over the four years I’ve lived here, I’ve kept a running journal of visits, lore and creatures. The more I’ve learned through traveling the island, the easier it’s become to add to that understanding and appreciate the island around me. Between all the special places to stumble across and the stories, there’s a fantastic quality that makes it feel more like the fiction of an open-world game like Skyrim than a common duty station.
A goddess’ ruins
Nanjo City is a treasure trove for early Okinawa history as the island’s mythic origin tale takes place here. On Hyakuna Beach, it’s said Amamikyo, the creator goddess, first came to her creation. The beach itself attracts a mix of visitors like beachcombers, yoga enthusiasts and family but it seems the legend isn’t the best known reason for visiting. Despite this, there’s a sacred place just in the rocks behind the beach with a stream running through it; this is Hamagaa-utaki, where she spent her first night before moving on. Short drives away are Amamikyo’s Tamagusuku Castle, multiple other castle ruins, and Sefa Utaki, the island’s most sacred site. The castle ruins are all free to explore and while not maintained as well as the famous UNESCO castles, each has a special personality and aura. Nanjo has a tourism map with these places on it, but you can also easily wander from point to point and just find something…
Near the beach’s backside are Okinawa’s original rice field, miifuda, and the sacred springs that feed it. These are marked on said map. But taking the stairs between them to a marked path leading to the top of the hill, I noticed a trace to the side. It was unmarked but clearly something had trample a narrow path. Following it in a low crouch through the tunnel of trees and brush, I first saw a small altar standing alone, which led to a striking sight: a rocky tomb under a cliff with a single large tree hanging off it. A friend translated the memorial stone as “Lord Tenbu”. Looking it up, I learned he was the “ancestor of rice planting” and his quiet resting place overlooks that original field.
The ogre’s tomb
At Katsuren Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they tell the story of Amawari, a proud and noble lord who brought prosperity to his people and led a failed insurrection against the Ryukyu Kingdom. His wife, a princess, fled her husband with the help of her servant Ufugusuku Uni; “uni” is the dialect term for “oni” or ogre. A massive man skilled in martial artists, he helped whisk her away and would return for Amawari’s head leading a royal army. For his reward he married the widowed princess and was given rule over Chibana.
Today, Amawari is celebrated and his Katsuren Castle treasured; but not far from Camp Shields and Kadena Air Base are the least impressive castle ruins in Okinawa, as nothing remains and even the park itself feels half forgotten. Following an overgrown and unmaintained trail around to the back side leads to maintained tomb, that of Uni Ufugusuku, the great ogre who defended the kingdom. When the first Sho dynasty ended he fell from favor and either was killed or took his life here.
Also, like a good Skyrim dungeon, there’s an immediate exit so no backtracking is required, there’s stairs leading down to a dirt parking lot and a residential neighborhood. Yeah, I could have started there but no signs lead to the tomb.
Northern Okinawa’s biodiversity is so full of unique flora, fauna, and creatures that its now part of a UNESCO world heritage site. The colorful Yanbaru Kuina, or Okinawa Rail, has become symbolic of these elusive animals. The rail’s bright orange break and legs, olive body and black and white belly make for a striking sight which even Okinawans may go their whole lives without seeing except in photos, warning signs, and on merchandise. It’s Japan’s only flightless bird but it runs fast. Its existence was first officially catalogued in 1981, so it’s both rare and somewhat mysterious as even researching those in captivity can only tell so much about the endangered species.
Once my wife and I were visiting locations used in the recent asadora, Chimudondon. It led us to the Churashima Nature School, an old elementary school that has been repurposed to support the growth of baby sea turtles born in an aquarium so that they can be released once they’re big enough. Visiting the little turtles was free and they were very cute, like hungry baby birds. Striking up a conversation with the staff, she told us that she’d seen many Yanbaru Kuina in the wild and that we were almost guaranteed to see them along a certain stretch of road but only if we arrived prior to 8:30 a.m. After that, the increase in road traffic would scare them off.
A few weeks later we followed her instructions and as soon as we got to the stretch of road, my wife threw on the brakes. A kuina darted across the road and into the bushes! Within an hour we had seen two more, including an even rarer baby kuina whose legs and beak had yet to turn orange. By the end of the day between there and pure luck in a few other spots, we’d seen six kuina (and a wild boar). I’d tell you where the road is, but it wouldn’t be much of a quest if you didn’t have to talk to someone and receive it first, would it?
If you want a guaranteed kuina encounter, visit the Okinawa Rail Learning Center. So far there’s no Kuina in local zoos, though that may change, but you can watch their rail, Kuta-kun, in his large terrarium and learn all about his species. He’s quite friendly and loves showing off.
Hyakuna Beach (Yaharadukasa)
Plus Code 4QQW+QP Nanjo, Okinawa
Plus Code 4QRW+3H Nanjo, Okinawa
Chibana Castle Ruins
5 Chome-12 Chibana, Okinawa, 904-2143
Plus Code 9R76+58 Okinawa
Katsuren Castle and Amawari Park
3807-2 Katsurenhaebaru, Uruma, Okinawa 904-2311
Plus Code 8VJJ+V3 Uruma, Okinawa
Churashima Nature School
41 Kayo, Nago, Okinawa 905-2262
Plus Code H425+89 Nago, Okinawa
Okinawa Rail Learning Center (Kuina Forest)
1477-35 Ada, Kunigami, Kunigami District, Okinawa 905-1503
Plus Code P7RW+C9 Kunigami, Okinawa
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